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Lebanese PM Calls for Ceasefire; Israeli Air Strikes Continue


Israeli air strikes in Lebanon killed at least 32 people on Saturday, and residents in the heavily targeted south were trying desperately to flee. The Lebanese prime minister declared his country a disaster zone, and pleaded for a U.N.-brokered ceasefire.

As Israeli bombs and missiles pounded the country for the fourth day, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora made an impassioned plea for help in a televised address to the nation and the world. He said, "We call for an immediate ceasefire, backed by the United Nations." He declared Lebanon a disaster zone and pleaded with the country's friends in the international community for help.

The Lebanese prime minister acknowledged that his government has been too weak to fully control the entire country, especially the Shi'ite-dominated south, where the militant group Hezbollah has been the defacto authority. He called for work to extend the state's authority over all its territories, in cooperation with the United Nations in southern Lebanon.

Israeli airstrikes have been heaviest in the south. Israeli leaders have vowed to continue the military offensive in Lebanon, until Hezbollah no longer has the capacity to attack Israel. Hezbollah has continued to fire rockets from Lebanon into Israel, which began its offensive after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers Wednesday in a cross-border raid.

Many of southern Lebanon's residents have been trying to make their way north to Beirut, or east into the mountains to escape the artillery barrages. But the journey has been arduous, since most of the bridges and roads leading out of the southern region have been bombed out.

Even so, several hundred people found their way to a small park in a mainly Sunni district of central Beirut. It has become a combination transit center and refugee camp.

The police repeatedly tried to convince people to move out of the park and into nearby schools, where the government has been providing some supplies, like food, water and mattresses to sleep on. Some families did leave in large military trucks, but others refused.

Volunteer aid worker Jihad Nammour said the frustration level was running high. "The police just came in, and they told them they should go to schools," he said. "The problem with the schools is, some of them are closed, and some of them are full. So, some people now are complaining, because they have twice been sent to schools that were closed."

Some Beirut residents and political groups were volunteering to help the new arrivals. A member of a small pro-Syrian political party, Wissam Abou-Sleiman, brought large jugs of drinking water, and used his own car to take some refugees to schools, if they wanted to go. "Well, they think it's safer here, but any location is a target. We thought of setting up tents here. But if we were to set up tents it would be a target for airstrikes, because it's visible from the air," he said.

So, some families were planning to spend another night sleeping outside in the park. A few had brought with them foam mattresses that quickly got soggy in the midsummer humidity. Most people just spread blankets on the grass.

They glanced nervously at the sky as a new round of air strikes echoed through the city and an Israeli military jet raced by high overhead.

The Israeli army appeared to widen its target list on Saturday, hitting a lighthouse on the seafront in central Beirut and all three of the country's ports, in apparent retaliation for a deadly rocket attack on an Israeli ship on Friday. One of those ports is in a mainly Christian town just north of Beirut, and it marks the first time that a Christian area has been targeted. The eastern border post between Syria and Lebanon was struck, as well.

Foreign embassies are crafting plans to evacuate their citizens. The U.S. and French embassies intend to move people by boat to the nearby island of Cyprus. Italy and several other European nations on Saturday put together a convoy that traveled by road to the northern border with Syria.

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